Thursday, March 28, 2013

(Don't) Be Still My Heart

A couple of weeks ago the knitwear designer, Andi Smith, had a heart attack. Everyone in the community was pretty stunned. We thought "Andi couldn't have had a heart attack, she's only 45. She has kids. She's funny. She has a great accent." 

 Since Lorna's Laces is involved in Stitch Red, I thought it made sense to take this opportunity to do a little PSA work. We put together a few questions and let Andi loose. (We also decided to include photos of some of her designs. This is serious business but a little eye candy never hurts.)

How did you know you were having a heart attack?
I didn’t. I woke up with a very intense, strange pain in my chest and torso about 4 am on a Sunday morning. My chest, stomach and arms all felt very heavy and squashed, there was an intermittent stabbing in my rib cage and I felt “not right”. I don’t know how else to describe it. Just a strong feeling that something was very wrong. The pain level wasn’t constant, either. It varied between a 5 - which is more than bearable - and a 9 - which really isn’t. 

Did you go to the ER immediately?
No. Everyone was asleep, and I thought perhaps some fresh air would “fix” everything. I went and sat outside in the snow for a while. It took me about ten minutes to walk back in though, and I felt much worse, so I woke my husband and told him we needed to go. I really didn’t want to, I have a special needs kid at home, and was worried about upsetting him, and also finding care for him. 


I think we tend to imagine the chest clutching, Fred Sanford sort of scenario when we think of heart attacks.  That's not true of women, is it?
It’s funny, I had the chest pain, but not the falling down on the floor, dramatically clutching my chest thing. I also had the stomach, neck, shoulder thing that I guess is more associated with women. In the ER, I found it strange that even though women have just as many heart attacks as men, I felt an absolute bias because I wasn’t doing the Fred Sanford thing, especially when my ECG came back normal. I felt as if they thought I was making the whole thing up. 

It wasn’t until my blood tests came back showing an enzyme that’s released during a heart attack, that I felt I was taken seriously. We went from being told I could go home to being rushed for angioplasty in about ten minutes. Gender bias or atypical symptoms? I don’t know. It does bother me though. I’m not sure how I was supposed to act during the whole episode, but apparently, I “wasn’t doing it right!”

Were there any warning signs, say a day or two in advance?
I’d actually been working on getting healthy for a few months beforehand. I’d cut way down on smoking in preparation to stopping, I’d increased my activity level and cut down on fats and sodium in my diet. The day before the heart attack, I felt better than I had in months. I guess it’s a good thing really, or my heart attack could have been worse. 

Are there any specific foods that can combat heart disease?
I know that low sodium, low fat is the way to go. I’m not a big fan of processed foods anyway, and they’re a big no no too. I’ve been looking at a more mediterranean approach to my diet, lots of fresh fish, beans and veggies. It’s not a difficult transition. I personally like the idea of everything in moderation. 

I did have a problem last week where I didn’t have enough sodium or potassium in my diet and suffered some rather nasty cramps throughout my body, so I’m conscious now of making sure I get a more balanced diet. 

I’ve found a couple of good websites that have good, common-sense information, The American Heart Association and their off-shoot Go Red for Women.  Both of these have been very helpful. 

In hindsight, was there any sensation, premonition, feeling that something was not right that you ignored?
I don’t think there was for me. However, when it was happening, even though I wanted to ignore it, even though I was convinced that it was “just one of those things”, I KNEW that whatever it was, I needed to go to the hospital. 

It’s strange, even after having a heart attack, I’m finding it difficult to relax and let my body heal. Earlier this week, I was feeling much better, a little stronger and more like myself. I started washing a few dishes, walking the dog in the yard, moving around more. Not to any huge extent, but certainly more than  I had done the previous week. It exhausted me, but I felt as if I were getting better. Until searing chest pain had me calling 911. No heart attack this time, but I’d definitely over done things. I need to heal. I need to rest and let my body heal. How do I do that? As a mom, a home maker, a designer, an author with a book that needs editing one more time? 

I’m determined to do it though. I’m sitting on my couch, ignoring the guilt, ignoring all the things that I could jump up and “fix”, ignoring all the things I want to do for my family. They can do for me for a while. 

I’m knitting. It’s the only thing that’s keeping me sane right now. I’m in the middle of designing a cardigan using Lorna’s Laces Helen’s Lace in a rather spectacular Violet color that Amanda picked out for me. I like it enough that it’s keeping me occupied and sitting still. I’m joking with my hubby that my love of yarn is healing my heart! 

I have a few takeaways here:

1) Get educated. Women's heart attacks are different than men's. Learn what to look for so you aren't taken by surprise. 

2) Pay attention to your body. You know it better than anyone. 

3) Speak up for yourself. Doctors are fallible. You are the expert on your body. 

4) For once in your life, put yourself first. Of course you'll be worried about your kids/work/family but it'll be far worse for them if this kills you. 

5) Don't apologize.You didn't do anything wrong. 

6) Let people take care of you. Really. It's OK. Friends, family, neighbors. They can all pitch in. 

There's a great video starring Elizabeth Banks that talks about this. It's clever and funny, just like Andi.

(Besides surviving a heart attack, Andi is a designer, tech editor and author. Her book, Big Foot Knits will be published this year by Cooperative Press. She volunteers as a special education advocate and makes sure to take knitting to meetings to help keep her sane.)


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this post... Every post really. I do enjoy your blog, but this entry was especially educational for me. Andi, take care of yourself. Glad you trusted yourself enough to get help when you needed it.

Anonymous said...

I once let an ER doctor shame me into believing that my rather unusual symptoms were in my head, just some kind of emotional reaction, stress-related, blah, blah, blah. It was a male doctor's go-to diagnosis for far too many female patients. I went home, totally humiliated, determined to keep my mouth shut in the future and live with the symptoms. Additional lab results came back later later that day that proved him wrong and I received a call to immediately go back to the emergency room. It could have been too late. Gender bias is rampant in the medical field and it's not limited to only male medical personnel. Stand your ground.

Robin said...

Please relay to Andi that her 'need' to keep doing all she used to do is a normal occurence and that she needs to keep resting until cleared by medical personnel. Having said that, she should also listen to her body even if cleared for activity. Naps are her friend. Children can 'do' for themselves with guidance from a resting mom.
Thanks for sharing from a mom who survived a stroke when her kids were young.

kristi porter said...

Thank goodness you listened to your body and your heart, Andi! I have a friend who was young and healthy who had a heart attack out walking one morning. When she called 911, even the paramedics didn't believe her and she's an MD! Fortunately they came... it wasn't until her heart stopped in the ambulance that they finally believed her! The good news is that it all worked out okay.

But always remember you are your own best (and sometimes only) advocate. Even though heart disease strikes a huge number of women each year, sometimes even professionals will need you to speak loudly -- never worry about doing so!

Deb said...

Great post, I had my inconvenient heart attack two years ago, no chest pain but at bed time my left arm felt as if it were being twisted,squashed a pulled at the same time, I knew exactly what it was, I chewed an aspirin drove to the ER where the blood test confirmed Heart Attack. I had the painful jaw the week before and the pain in the arm the night before only not as bad, I have had 2 more heart attacks since and each time I take that aspirin before heading to the hospital.